Frost hits northern Africa

Westgate Hotel, Newport, 1839

Many people have commented at great length on the events of northern Africa and the Middle East. 

After the initial joy at the successful uprisings in both Tunisia and Egypt, the feeling is now of concern for the people of Libya and Bahrain. Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also had recent popular revolts to varying degrees and successes. 

It is Libya however that is concentrating the thoughts of western government at the moment, with David Cameron leading the call for a No Fly Zone. 

Before I go further I’d like to state clearly that I’m against any military intervention, and make no mistake a No Fly Zone would be a military intervention. It would escalate the problems faced by the people and create further hardship for the ordinary person. 

Western Governments have terrible records when it comes to supporting and arming various military groups and civil wars. Any talk of any form of military intervention by western governments would be based entirely on selfish motivation, either because of business interest or the belief that it is a popular option with the electorate. What else explains the deafening silence when it comes to assisting the people of Bahrain as Saudi Arabia sends in its military to savagely stop any uprising there, or western action to protect the various peoples of the CongoDarfur and others? 

But these popular revolts in northern Africa and the middle east today have echoes with our own history in Wales 170 years ago. 

Then, much like now, the people felt powerless; were exploited by a wealthy elite who made their wealth on the back of the labour of the proletariat. The cost of living was high and living conditions were terrible; a large percentage of the population were young; they had no democratic power; political corruption was endemic; and society was changing quickly with rapid developments in technology. 

They formed a Charter demanding certain rights, and the Chartist movement fired the imagination of many. 

In 1839 it came to a head with the Chartists marching on Newport. They were essentially leaderless, though individuals such as John Frost and Zephaniah

John Frost

Williams were the intellectual thinkers behind the movement in south Wales. 

It is thought that up to an eighth of the total workforce of the Gwent valleys iron and coal mines attended the Chartist uprising in Newport. 

Like the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, it was thought that the people of Wales would never stand up against those in power. 

The Chartists movement under John Frost was generally a peaceful movement. But as they marched from the Gwent valleys down on Newport they were infiltrated by people generally intent on mischief making. Like the people at Tahrir Square, the Chartists made way for the square in front of the Westgate Hotel, though this was not their initial target. 

The privileged Whig Government made a decision that they would not tolerate the proletariat agitating for reform and taking power away from them, and special constables and soldiers were stationed at Newport in anticipation of an uprising. Over twenty died in the resulting skirmish, and after charging 200 of the protesters with high treason and sentencing the leaders to execution (hung, drawn and quartered), they were eventually sentenced to transportation for life in Van Deamon’s Land (Tazmania). Frost was eventually pardoned and came back. 

Like Qadhafi in Libya defenders of the class system claimed that Chartism was ‘a foreign implant’, and that the leaders came from outside, and was part of a Russian plot! 

Those that marched on Newport, though marching under the Chartist banner, were in fact a gathering of people incongruous with Frosts own peaceful beliefs. Zephaniah Williams for instance wanted an armed uprising to establish a British Republic. Many were armed to the teeth; some were indeed supported by outside forces; they had differing goals and objectives; some wanted an armed insurrection others wanted simply to release their colleagues that were jailed in Newport.  But, as David Jones points out in his brilliant ‘The Last Rising’,

‘Their main objective was to obtain the political rights which were denied them…the Chartists were a victim of their own logic and changing circumstances’. 

One headline from the Western Vindicator on 23 November 1839 read:

“What remains to be done? How SHALL THE CHARTISTS PROCEED? – Moral force has failed. And alas! Physical force has failed likewise. We cannot fight against armed bodies of well organised butchers of mankind.” 

The one thing that we can be certain following the Newport Rising of 1839 was that the genie was out of the bottle, and social changes were, though painfully slow, inevitable. 

The question is what lessons, if any, can be learnt from our past that could be applied to the developments in northern Africa and the Arabian states?